[Episcopal New Service] The Rt. Rev. Robert P. Atkinson, a former diocesan bishop in West Virginia and assistant in Virginia, will be remembered in a memorial service Aug. 4.
Atkinson, 84, died July 4 in Jacksonville, Florida. The service will be held at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Greenwood, Va.
He was the fifth bishop of West Virginia, serving from 1976-1988. He had been coadjutor for three years before being installed as diocesan of the Charleston-based diocese. Atkinson also served as assistant bishop in the Diocese of Virginia from 1989-1993.
Bishop Robert E. L. Strider, third bishop of West Virginia, ordained Atkinson as a deacon in June 1953 and a priest in February 1954. Atkinson, who was born in Washington, D.C., held a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Virginia and a Bachelor of Divinity from Virginia Theological Seminary. He was also later awarded fellowships to the College of Preachers and Berkeley Divinity School at Yale.
Atkinson served parishes in West Virginia and Tennessee before being elected bishop in 1973.
In the fall of 1974, he served on a textbook advisory committee for the West Virginia Kanawha County Board of Education, which was in the midst of a violent book-banning controversy. English textbooks and supplementary reading adopted by the board had been called un-American, anti-Christian, anti-religious, and immoral, according to a report by the Diocesan Press Service (a forerunner to Episcopal News Service). Fundamentalist preachers called for three board members to be struck dead for their support of the books. On Halloween, 16 sticks of dynamite blasted the Board of Education building a block from the Diocesan Center.
Atkinson had two children in the Charleston public schools at the time. The DPS reported that his experience on the advisory committee was “harrowing, disillusioning, saddening.” He, as well as other members of the clergy, was subjected to abuse — by written word in newspapers, by telephone in his own home, and verbally on the streets.
Atkinson supported the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, and on June 15, 1976, was one of 67 Episcopal Church bishops who said they would co-sponsor legislation at the General Convention in September of that year to end the ban on female priests and bishops (female deacons were already permitted). That convention agreed to permit women into the orders of priest and bishop.
In 1980, Atkinson added his voice to those of other Episcopal and Anglican bishops who decried the South African government’s decision to revoke Desmond Tutu’s passport.
“It seems to me that the withdrawal of the passport of Bishop Tutu is uncalled for and a further demonstration of the South African government’s sinful stand on racial oppression expressed through apartheid,” Atkinson said to the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid.
Atkinson is survived by Rosemary, his wife of nearly 59 years, and other family members.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.